The official deer season closed on February 15, but to the chagrin of Scottish Natural Heritage, an agreed reduction in the deer density around Caenlochan in Angus was not achieved by local estates before the cut-off.
Now, SNH – which has taken on the responsibilities of the old Deer Commission – is compelling estate owners to get the job done outwith the season, warning that Scotland faces legal action if it does not act to protect its natural environment from deer over-population.
However, veteran stalker and Scottish Gamekeepers Association vice chairman Peter Fraser has slammed the extended cull, claiming that it compromises animal welfare in the pursuit of bureaucratic targets that could be deferred to a more suitable time.
Mr Fraser highlighted that the deer density target of 19 deer per square kilometre was put in place by the now defunct Deer Commission a decade ago – and suggested that rather than dogmatically pursuing that figure, SNH should review it.
"While it is acknowledged some estates have failed to deliver the target, killing nearly 700 deer in three weeks raises serious welfare issues and the concern for the animals surely has to kick in," said Mr Fraser.
"If this was to go ahead, government would be laying itself open to criticism of committing a wildlife crime. To rush simply to achieve a cull target is wrong. It will be a bloodbath.
Mr Fraser said that recent snow had pulled the deer down off the high tops and greatly restricted their movement, concentrating them in large groups. Taking the gun to them now, he claimed, would mean that the same deer would be targeted over and over again, placing them under conditions of 'insufferable stress'.
"It will also endanger the survivors because, as the deer try desperately to escape or 'panache', the surviving deer will burn up body fat reserves required to get them through until Spring.
"The general body condition of deer at this time of year is poor and the culled animals will go into the food chain, which would seem to contradict the aspiration of producing quality venison in Scotland," he added. "This is an extreme action which should be re-thought."
At the root of the matter, said Mr Fraser, was the long-held belief that deer were the main cause of grazing damage to habitat and alpine plants in the Caenlochan area. He accused the DC and now SNH of overlooking the impact of sheep and hares in the area, and of failing to honour earlier promises to factor in these other species.
Responding to this broadside, SNH stressed that the Angus Glens deer management group, involving local landowners and partners, had agreed on the 19 deer per square kilometre density, and all local estates had subsequently signed up to achieving this under a section seven agreement as set out in the 1996 Deer (Scotland) Act.
"At 20 deer per square kilometre the Caenlochan area has higher deer densities than the majority of sporting estates in Scotland," said SNH. "The Scottish and UK Governments could face legal action if the condition of these protected areas, which are in poor condition, are not met.
"We are aware of potential welfare issues with culling hinds in heavy snow and for those estates which may be shooting deer until the end of February, our advice has been to cull selectively and humanely following best practice."
SNH insisted that it had been working with estates to reduce the impact of deer on the protected areas, forestry and agricultural interests, while maintaining viable rural sporting businesses – an effort that had seen 'a significant amount' of taxpayers' money, staff and resources invested.
"Our role is to work with everyone to manage deer sustainably in Scotland," said the spokesman. "We will continue to monitor both habitats and deer populations to help us make informed decisions. This includes understanding the balance between sheep, deer, hares, and any other herbivores."